Revisiting the 1920s & 1930s

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007), Kindle Loc. 145-88:

It is time to revisit the late 1920s and the 1930s. Then we see that neither the standard history nor the standard rebuttal entirely captures the realities of the period. The first reality was that the 1920s was a great decade of true economic gains, a period whose strong positive aspects have been obscured by the troubles that followed. Those who placed their faith in laissez-faire in that decade were not all godless. Indeed religious piety moved some, including President Calvin Coolidge, to hold back, to pause before intervening in private lives.

The fact that the stock market rose high at the end of the decade does not mean that all the growth of the preceding ten years was an illusion. American capitalism did not break in 1929. The crash did not cause the Depression. It was a necessary correction of a too-high stock market, but not a necessary disaster. The market players at the time of the crash were not villains, though some of them—Albert Wiggin of Chase, who shorted his own bank’s stock—behaved reprehensibly. There was indeed an annihilating event that followed the crash, one that Hoover never understood and Roosevelt understood incompletely: deflation.

Hoover’s priggish temperament, as much as any philosophy he held, caused him to both misjudge the crash and fail in his reaction to it. And his preference for Germany as a negotiating partner over Soviet Russia later blinded him to the dangers of Nazism. Roosevelt by contrast had a wonderful temperament, and could get along, when he felt like it, with even his worst opponent. His calls for courage, his Fireside Chats, all were intensely important. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—in the darkness, Roosevelt’s voice seemed to shine. He allowed Cordell Hull to write trade treaties that in the end would benefit the U.S. economy enormously. Roosevelt’s dislike of Germany, which dated from childhood, helped him to understand the threat of Hitler—and, eventually, that the United States must come to Europe’s side.

Still, Hoover and Roosevelt were alike in several regards. Both preferred to control events and people. Both underestimated the strength of the American economy. Both doubted its ability to right itself in a storm. Hoover mistrusted the stock market. Roosevelt mistrusted it more. Roosevelt offered rhetorical optimism, but pessimism underlay his policies. Though Americans associated Roosevelt with bounty, his insistent emphasis on sharing—rationing, almost—betrayed a conviction that the country had entered a permanent era of scarcity. Both presidents overestimated the value of government planning. Hoover, the Quaker, favored the community over the individual. Roosevelt, the Episcopalian, found laissez-faire economics immoral and disturbingly un-Christian.

And both men doctored the economy habitually. Hoover was a constitutionalist and took pains to intervene within the rules—but his interventions were substantial. Roosevelt cared little for constitutional niceties and believed they blocked progress. His remedies were on a greater scale and often inspired by socialist or fascist models abroad. A number of New Dealers, Tugwell included, had been profoundly shaped by Mussolini’s Italy and, especially, Soviet Russia. That influence was not parenthetical. The hoarse-voiced opponents of the New Deal liked to focus on the connections between these men, the Communist Party, and authorities in Soviet Russia. And several important New Dealers did indeed have those connections, most notably Lauchlin Currie, Roosevelt’s economics adviser in later years, and Harry Dexter White, at the Treasury. White’s plan for the pastoralization of Germany takes on a new light when we know this. Lee Pressman and Alger Hiss duped colleagues in government repeatedly.

But few New Dealers were spies or even communists. The emphasis on that question is in any case misplaced. Overall, the problem of the New Dealers on the left was not their relationship with Moscow or the Communist Party in the United States, if indeed they had one. Senator McCarthy was wrong. The problem was their naïveté about the economic value of Soviet-style or European-style collectivism—and the fact that they forced such collectivism upon their own country. Fear of being labeled a red-baiter has too long prevented historians from looking into the Soviet influence upon American domestic policy in the 1930s.

What then caused the Depression? Part of the trouble was indeed the crash. There were monetary and credit challenges at the young Federal Reserve, and certainly at the banks. Deflation, not inflation, was a big problem, both early on and also later, in the mid-1930s. The loss of international trade played an enormous role—just as both Hoover and Roosevelt said at different points. If the United States had not raised tariffs at the beginning of the decade and Europe had not collapsed in the 1930s, the United States would have had a trading partner to help sustain it. Part of the problem was the challenge of the transition to industrialization from agriculture. Part was freakish weather: floods and the uncanny Dust Bowl seemed to validate the sense of apocalypse. With money and the weather breaking down, men and women in America felt extraordinarily helpless. They were willing to suspend disbelief.

But the deepest problem was the intervention, the lack of faith in the marketplace. Government management of the late 1920s and 1930s hurt the economy. Both Hoover and Roosevelt misstepped in a number of ways. Hoover ordered wages up when they wanted to go down. He allowed a disastrous tariff, Smoot-Hawley, to become law when he should have had the sense to block it. He raised taxes when neither citizens individually nor the economy as a whole could afford the change. After 1932, New Zealand, Japan, Greece, Romania, Chile, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden began seeing industrial production levels rise again—but not the United States.


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